February 19, 2009 9:25 PM   Subscribe

Combat Outpost. "As US and the UK forces struggle for a way forward in Afghanistan, John D McHugh's unique film from one of the US military's most dangerous outposts shows just how western forces are losing ground to the Taliban." Where are Afghanistan's missing millions? "Clancy Chassay hears charges of corruption levelled against the UN and aid agencies after millions earmarked for a Kabul hospital disappear."
posted by homunculus (21 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

Transparency International ranks Afghanistan 176th out of 180 in their annual corruption index, trailed only by Haiti, Iraq, Myanmar, and Somalia.

It's not just the UN and the aid agencies. Pouring more aid in wasn't a solution then, and it won't be now.

Oh, and the opium eradication / alternative income projects? Not working so well.
posted by charmcityblues at 9:38 PM on February 19, 2009

Good vid. "They are."
posted by stbalbach at 9:41 PM on February 19, 2009

Jonathan Steele has a piece in the Guardian where points out that the West is doing worse in Afghanistan than the Soviets were.

It's time to just leave.
posted by sien at 9:53 PM on February 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

One wonders why they don't build the outpost on top of the mountain, rather than in the valley where the Taliban/ACM can occupy the mountains above them.
posted by fatbird at 9:55 PM on February 19, 2009

Afghanistan: chaos central
posted by Abiezer at 10:00 PM on February 19, 2009

As stbalbach says, proper bit of journalism. Coalition troops look like they need periscopes a la WWI if they're going to be stuck fighting in trenches.
This wikileaks document on rising civilian deaths is apparently the one Owen McNally was arrested for passing on.
posted by Abiezer at 10:26 PM on February 19, 2009

Nice piece and a good find. I just finished reading "Beyond the Khyber Pass: The Road to British Disaster in the First Afghan War" by John H Waller and there's one part where the British are debating the formation of a punitive expedition to avenge the loss of the first army they sent into Afghanistan. In the course of the debate a British official remarked that it would be pointless to send in 15,000 more soldiers because they would be unable to accomplish anything worthy of the investment. I'm paraphrasing slightly, but the similarity in the numbers is uncanny and the odds are always going to be on the cheaper man anyway.
I'm not so sure what Obama's trying to achieve here and I'd feel better if he would distance himself from *that* (and other) part(s) of the Kennedy myth.
posted by Horatius at 11:59 PM on February 19, 2009

First thing to remember about Afghanistan: the Taleban existed for a reason... and that was because of all the local factionalism caused by the warlords, that caused huge ineffciencies and problems. Think about the whole country prior to the Taleban being essentially local warlords, each one with their own toll roads, their own people all wanting a take of every bit of money that flows through their country. The Taleban might've been fundamentalist f*heads, but they were also a government of strict laws, brutally enforced on anyone who got in the way. They had the people's aquiesence, by and large, because their form of government worked. The flow of commerce improved, poppies were banned, opium production plummeted until the US helped put the warlords back into power, under a "central government", which was little more than mayor of Kabul... or as some of the NGO workers called it, Kabubble.

I have a friend who worked in Afghanistan as an NGO, with the goal of building a major project to provide catchbasins for water throughout the country, which is EXTREMELY short of water for agriculture, with poor soil. That makes every bit of water that can be collected very important, with control of that water something which is fought for amongst the central government, local warlords, Taleban, and villagers who try somehow to assert their own independence, but invariably get rolled by one of the other powers-that-be.

Indeed, just building storage for water was highly political, because the local powers-that-be wouldn't care for people undercutting their business if they had control of local water resources. That meant that it wasn't just a matter of building something, which was very, very hard and expensive due to security issues. It was also important to make sure it wasn't stripped or destroyed later. There were *NEVER* enough NATO forces in the country to ever do this, unfortunately, and those forces that were there were very tied up, or were restricted to a security bubble in the safest part of the country, because their nations wanted to appease the U.S., NATO, etc., but weren't given a mandate from their people to take an aggressive role in peacemaking. That fell largely on the U.S., Canada, and Britain, who had no troops to spare to help with reconstruction out of the bubble. Literally, it was like zero help unless you're under attack, and even then, you have to fend for yourselves for awhile.

Security was woefully inadequate while she worked there, to the point that she spent lots of time in the bubble planning what would be done -- a good year or so working out how they'd make it happen, with the help of locals, with each plan prone to change as situations got more difficult. Each problem was dependent upon an infrastructure that oftentimes didn't exist yet... like roads to where they'd need to go.

Security started to be manditory once aid workers started getting targeted and brutally killed. Projects that were still in planning stages had their costs skyrocket, as needed reconstruction funds were diverted to security. It became hard to get out of the bubble to do planning, delays happened, and more reliance was placed on locals, who oftentimes were unreliable, or simply nickelled-and-dimed by all the powers that be.

Eventually, things got so bad that it was generally agreed that pretty much all NGOs would pull their people out, except for the heart of the Kabubble. Plans changed again, causing huge changes to every project. Somehow, it was necessary to trust individual Afghanis to do the reconstruction, as surrogates for NGO workers. Of course, they'd be nickeled and dimed every step of the way, and quite possibly be told by the local powers that be -- one of them, at least -- that the construction wasn't wanted unless it was under their control. You help the central government instead of the local warlord? It's your ass. You help the local warlord instead of the Taleban? Jihad on you. You help the locals? One of the other factions will take it from them.

Really, the best life solution in such an impossible situation is a combination of bribes for the parties that be, embezzlement for yourself, and lies back to the people who gave you the contract in the first place, with very little change.

For this reason, it's very hard to start talking about fraud. The real fraud is, you can't get in there and do anything, because NGOs aren't soldiers, and aren't there to get shot at, blown up, or get their heads sawed off.

My friend's project was put on longterm postponement when she and her team had to leave. They spent about a year planning everything, only to find that the ground had shifted underneath them again... with probably about 200 years worth of work, indefinitely postponed. They'd have to find new jobs, while their expertise and knowledge of the project all disappeared in a puff of smoke. Somehow, the NGO would have to go through a lengthy review to see how they'd pull this thing off in some other way, at some other time, through some miracle of actual local help.

So, no, it doesn't surprise me that someone in the UN don't know about the problems with what has been built. Why should they know? They've probably never been there.
posted by markkraft at 12:09 AM on February 20, 2009 [5 favorites]

I should probably correct that last bit... I beleve she said there were about 40 people involved in this project, plus security, plus lots of locals, who are very cheap in comparison.

So, that could mean, say, 100 years -- western salary equivalent -- of lost time / money. I have no idea what that translates to, with equipment and everything else though. $20 million? $50 million? More? Who knows. Sure goes fast, though...!
posted by markkraft at 12:17 AM on February 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

Who's the Russian equivalent of John Rambo?

I wonder if there'll be anything as cinematographically "good" as Lawrence of Arabia for the current clusterfuck that is American Iraq and American Afghanistan?
posted by porpoise at 12:20 AM on February 20, 2009

"I wonder if there'll be anything as cinematographically "good" as Lawrence of Arabia for the current clusterfuck that is American Iraq and American Afghanistan?"

If there ever is, you can bet one thing... it won't be filmed on location any time soon.
posted by markkraft at 12:27 AM on February 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Commandos target drugs labs where Taleban and mafias reap $100m profits
An Afghan government official involved in counter-narcotics told The Times: “Helmand is now just a criminal province, it is a Colombia situation. It is producing 60 to 70 per cent of Afghan opium. There are major international criminal groups processing and trafficking there.”
The fierce resistance encountered by the troops has left officials wondering whether the violence is primarily Taleban-inspired or if a majority of local farmers are also now fighting the eradication forces...
posted by Abiezer at 3:06 AM on February 20, 2009

From the article accompanying the video: -
More than 40% of aid goes back to donor countries in corporate profits - an estimated $6bn since the start of reconstruction seven years ago. According to Acbar, profit margins for foreign contractors are sometimes as high as 50%. A lack of accountability provides a smokescreen for such excesses, making it difficult to establish how much is being made at each stage of subcontracting.
This is the crux of the problem together with endemic in couuntry corruption where more than $100-250 million is paid in bribes every year.
posted by adamvasco at 3:15 AM on February 20, 2009

For those wanting the background analysis and thinking on some of these questions:

Two analytical pieces on why the state-building [pdf] agenda has failed [doc]. They describe a paradox: if you pour money through NGOs instead of the government, you'll never build the capacity of the government; if you support the government, you'll lose a lot of money through corruption (nevertheless, this is the recognised current aid "good practice");

A critique of aid effectiveness in Afghanistan [pdf] by Matt Waldman of Oxfam (quoted in Guardian piece);

A damning analysis of the military spending by the Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan.
posted by YouRebelScum at 7:43 AM on February 20, 2009

You know, the thing that strikes me about Afghanistan is that they do not want to be bothered; this is the only collective theme that seems to emerge from their history. A foreigner shows up, they unite and defeat him and then fight amongst themselves. You might have some success playing one tribe against another, but your will is going to run out before things quiet down.

Clearly (to me) the people of Afghanistan do not want to be a state as we define it and trying to impose our systems of governance and methods of living are not welcome. In other words, I don't mind a helping hand when I'm down, but if I think I'm doing OK then I don't want someone standing over my shoulder telling me what he thinks I should do to make my life better. I'm all for foreign aid, but I think at some point it crosses the line to being condescending.

(Also, in my first post, the actual number of troops mentioned by the British official was 27,000, but the idea stands I think)
posted by Horatius at 10:41 PM on February 20, 2009

Iran: the enemy that almost isn't
posted by homunculus at 1:25 PM on February 22, 2009

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